The Detroit Lions were just 9 yards away from pulling off their second straight upset and winning their third game in four contests.
Down four points with 39 seconds remaining, backup quarterback Tim Boyle faced a first-and-goal from the 9-yard line. Four shots for a dramatic game-winner in just his second career start. Unfortunately for Boyle, what could have been a brilliant opportunity for a joyous moment he’d never forget, quickly turned into a huge mistake he’ll regret for a long time.
Boyle threw a game-clinching interception seemingly right at Atlanta Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun.
It’s hard not to feel bad for the kid. He was put into a tough situation—with starter Jared Goff, who was on a roll, being placed on reserve/COVID-19 earlier in the week. Prior to this game, Boyle had only 27 career passes in the NFL and he had never been in this situation before: game on the line, last minute of the game with the ball in his hands.
And while the Lions may have actually been better off with the loss, that didn’t make the moment any easier for Boyle.
“I just went into this game feeling really comfortable, (but) for it to end like that just it’s heartbreaking really,” Boyle said after the game.
Let’s see what exactly went wrong on the final play and break down the mistake Boyle made.
After the game, Boyle was very forthcoming with what happened. He took full responsibility. He simply saw zone coverage when Atlanta was in man.
“It’s a man-zone read so if I have man, I’m working one side. If I have zone, I’m working the other,” Boyle said. “I was kind of unclear going into the—when we broke the huddle—kind of unclear if it was man or zone-based off the looks that they gave previously. Looking back, it was man coverage. I worked the zone-covered side; that was my mistake.”
The Falcons are in man-to-man, with a linebacker at robber and a single-high safety playing middle zone. Detroit, as Boyle pointed out, are in a zone beater at the top of the screen, and a man-to-man beater at the bottom of the screen.
The route combo at the top is meant to give Boyle three potential options, depending on how the team in zone reacts. Here’s a look at what Boyle is seeing right before he makes his decision (note: this is not actually what is happening)
Boyle is reading Kalif Raymond’s seam route the entire time. Because he thinks the Falcons are in zone, he expects the corner on his hip to release into the flats to cover Craig Reynolds out of the backfield. And because Tom Kennedy is drawing towards the corner of the end zone, he’ll draw a defender away from Raymond. Essentially, Boyle is confident he can fit the ball up the seam before the middle safety gets there. In fact, Boyle said he tried to throw a back-shoulder ball to Raymond, likely to avoid that safety, current standing around the left hashmark.
Unfortunately, even if this was Boyle’s plan, he either didn’t see or didn’t account for the middle linebacker who was standing in his passing route nearly the entire time. And due to Boyle’s inexperience, he never looked off the linebacker.
“I felt like Lif (Raymond) kind of popped a little bit and I was going to kind of back shoulder him a little bit but the hole player, 54, kind of read my eyes and picked me off,” Boyle said after the game.
Perhaps what caused Boyle to ignore the linebacker was one false step the defender made towards the middle. But a small hesitation by the quarterback—a subtle pump-fake, perhaps forced by the pressure from his right—gave the linebacker all the time he needed to recover:
Boyle admitted he still had man reads on that side of the field—likely the checkdown to Reynolds in this case—but he read zone in the heat of the moment.
“I don’t necessarily think it was disguised,” Boyle said. “I think the game was just happening so quick that bodies were kind of just flying around and by the time I’m trying to get the ball snapped and kind of the clocks running down, you know, you kind of have to trust your gut on that one and in the moment, I trusted the fact that I thought it was zone. I wish I could go back.”
As for the back side of the play, it’s hard to know whether the Lions had a game-winning route, as we didn’t get a good angle on how the routes progressed with Detroit’s two best receivers: Amon-Ra St. Brown and Josh Reynolds. Here’s the closest thing we got:
Reynolds runs a pretty decent route and creates some separation to the outside, while St. Brown is pretty well covered, and a throw to him would be a 50/50 ball, at best. Eventually, Reynolds breaks free enough that he’s probably the best option on this play, but there’s no guarantee he scores.
But, ultimately, that’s what was so frustrating about this play. It was first down. Detroit didn’t have to go for the kill shot. Boyle didn’t have to try and fit it in a tight window. If it wasn’t there, Boyle could’ve turfed it and given the team three more chances at a better look. Or he could’ve checked down to either of the Reynolds.
Unfortunately, he made the kind of mistake an inexperienced quarterback would, and the Lions paid for it.